When I speak or appear on podcasts, one common question I hear is, “How do I decide if I want to become a foster parent?” It’s an understandable and very good question. The pull to provide a family to children who need one is strong, but parenting traumatized children is difficult and messy. Even experienced foster parents can find themselves wondering what they have gotten themselves into.
There are several steps I always recommend. It is impossible for you or anyone to predict what will happen on your adventure of fostering children. Like any journey, however, there are some things that you can do to be as prepared as possible.
Know Your Circumstances
The first thing you need to do is take a good look at your circumstances to be sure that you have the foundation for adding a child to your family. If you are married or in a permanent relationship, that relationship needs to be set in concrete. Parenting a child with trauma is going to test that relationship more than you can predict. If there are any cracks in your marriage, this adventure will expose them. Be willing to seek advice or counseling or whatever you need to keep the foundation of your family strong. The two adults need to stick together, or everything else will crumble.
If you are single, make sure that you have a stronger-than-usual safety net. In some ways, I found that being a single foster parent was easier than when I was married, simply because I didn’t have to work with another adult’s opinion. But I also had a strong network of family and friends willing to provide advice, a shoulder to cry on, or an extra pair of hands when I needed it. No matter how strong a person you are, you cannot do everything that your child needs. Make sure that you have a network that can help when you need it.
Evaluate Your Resources
Raising children is expensive, and foster parenting is no different. Whatever stipend you receive will never be enough to cover everything that your child needs. For example, government-funded medical care for my children was usually good, but the mental health care was abysmal. The practitioners and clinics who accepted the foster care insurance were at best overworked and sometimes downright incompetent. I always ended up funding counseling and psychiatric care myself. I know that the situation is better in some jurisdictions than in others, but wherever you live, there will always be something that you have to fund. Whether it’s extracurricular activities or a good therapist, be sure that you are willing and able to provide for your child’s needs.
Research and Learn
Start learning all you can about foster parenting from every resource you can find. There are a lot of good books on the subject (including mine), and many good online training resources.
I have learned a lot from foster parent Facebook groups. Be discriminating — some groups have policy agendas or a theme of bad experiences that you don’t need yet. Conversations devoted to the bad experiences of former foster children are important for those children and maybe helpful for experienced foster parents. They can be overwhelming, however, for a new person. Be sure that you join a group that is positive and dedicated to helping each other.
Take One Step at a Time
Finally, take small steps into fostering. Start with deciding whether to work directly with your state agency or with a private agency. Some agencies work with particular populations of children, while others focus on groups of foster parents. Research which private agencies align with your values and offer the resources that match what your family will need.
Some agencies will allow you to serve alongside a current foster family. It is similar to shadowing that’s common in intern arrangements, but you also become part of the safety net for that child and family. You can provide concrete help while having a more experienced foster parent to provide guidance. If the state agency doesn’t have a formal shadowing system, find a foster family in your church or civic organization and set up an informal arrangement. You may have to go through some level of foster training, but you generally can delay any actual placements until you feel confident enough to accept a foster child.
If you have the option, start as an emergency or respite placement. Both are short-term responsibilities and will allow you to learn the system while providing a valuable service. Short-term care may not be as emotionally rewarding as long-term relationships, but they fill a critical need in the system. When I started as a long-term foster parent, my job required me to take regular work-related trips out of town. If I had not been working with an agency that had respite care available, I could not have served as a permanent placement.
Emergency and respite care also help children directly. Disrupted placements is one of the biggest problems for kids, and a series of them can cause long-term trauma. Emergency placements allow a caseworker to spend more time finding an appropriate match for a long-term placement and can help lower the disruption rate. Respite care can provide a resource for a parent who has to travel, as I did. It also can help relieve the pressure on a family and help stabilize a difficult placement.
There are any number of ways to get a glimpse of what fostering involves before you actually take on full responsibility for a child. Be honest with yourself about your circumstances, learn all you can, and get as full a picture as you can from the outside. There is no way to predict exactly which challenges you will face, but the more you know ahead of time, the better idea you will have of whether you truly are called to help raise other people’s children.